Ontario Progressive Conservatives fired the opening salvo of their June 2, 2022 re-election campaign a couple of weeks ago when they put a paid ad on social media attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals. The ad accused the feds of letting COVID-19 into the country by failing to close airports to international flights quickly enough in early 2020. And that failure, the ad insinuated, is why today we have variants from all over the world flying freely into Canada.
Stretching the truth is never a big concern of political parties in campaign mode. And attacking the federal government is a common, predictable – and usually safe – tactic in Ontario provincial politics.
It may not be so safe this time. For one thing, Trudeau has an election coming up, too. He needs to add seats in Ontario. At the moment, his minority government is confusing just about everyone as it struggles to coordinate its messaging about vaccine choices and the conditions that need to exist before life can return to normal. He cannot afford to have voters further confused by attacks on his government’s management of the pandemic – especially not attacks bellowed by a premier with a megaphone as large as the PM’s, by a premier trying to cover up his own incompetence on the COVID file. If Trudeau retaliates by trying to slap Ford down, we could be in for an ugly slanging match that neither leader would win.
Folks who live in glass houses are ill-advised to throw stones – a truism worth remembering by politicians on the election trail.
Jason Kenney’s Alberta has the highest COVID infection rate in North America this spring and Ford’s Ontario is not far behind, a comparison that inspired the brilliant Michael de Adder to produce what I thought was a very funny cartoon last week. It showed two PC workers putting the finishing touches to an election billboard that showed a grinning Ontario premier with this message: “Doug Ford: At least he isn’t Jason Kenney.”
Although Ford’s polling numbers are not as disastrous as Kenney’s, they are moving in that direction. The Ontario Liberals, with a leader no one knows and not enough MPPs to form an official party, have moved ahead of the Tories in voter support. In the most recent Innovative Research poll, 59 per cent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the PC government; 55 per cent disapproved of its handling of the pandemic; Ford received the least favorable rating (at minus 20 per cent) of the four party leaders; and “don’t know” was the leading choice for premier.
With a year to go, today’s numbers need not be fatal. But they may be a harbinger. The PCs, says Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group, “should be quite concerned because what's been impacted are underlying feelings about the premier and the government. Public opinion is anchored by underlying feelings.”
For Ford and his government, hardening of the underlying feelings spells danger. They would need to do something dramatic, something out of character, to change the channel, to push their mishandling of COVID into the background, and to direct voters’ attention in a less dangerous direction.
A major cabinet shuffle is essential for three reasons. First, to eliminate ministers whose only apparent contributions have been to embarrass the government; the Conservatives cannot afford to face the electorate with the infuriatingly inept Merrilee Fullerton as minister of long-term care or the polarizing Stephen Lecce as minister of education. Second, to cut out ministerial deadwood, of which there is enough for a grand bonfire on the south lawn at Queen’s Park. (BTW, does anyone know whatever happened to Caroline Mulroney?) Third, to bring in new blood, outside talent to strengthen the ministry and to give the party that which it does not have today – a creditable complement of prospective leadership candidates.
The question Conservatives are asking themselves is, “Can we can win again with Doug Ford?” The answer is probably No. His one real campaign asset is the lack of discernible enthusiasm for the other three parties and the public’s scant interest in their leaders.
I suspect the opposition leader, Andrea Horwath, leader of the NDP for 12 years and loser of three consecutive provincial elections, is experiencing a hardening of underlying feelings, too. Her best-before date was probably June 2018. That was when ordinarily level-headed Ontario voters spurned her for the third time, implausibly throwing themselves at the feet of the PC pseudo-populist and his crew of political unknowns.
Are the perceived weaknesses of the alternatives enough to re-elect the Conservatives? Not if Greg Lyle, who pays closer attention than other pollsters to trends in Ontario, is correct about the deep-seated feelings toward Ford. I suspect he is right. Disillusion and distrust of the premier seem to be at a point of no return. When, after three years of majority PC government, “don’t know” tops the people’s preference list, there is something seriously amiss in Ontario politics.
I may be misreading the public mood, but I have a growing sense that Ontario has made up its collective mind, that it wants a government and a premier with fresh ideas and a credible agenda to address the real needs of the province – from health care to education to public transit to urgent preparations for the inevitable next pandemic.
If I’m right, 2018 was an aberration and Ontario voters are unlikely to let themselves be gulled again by snake oil and one-buck beer. If I’m right, Ontarians have decided to rid themselves of the incumbents. They may not have figured out the replacement. They have a year to get it right – and “don’t know” will not be their answer.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].